Science, Politics, and the Truth

I must admit to a certain level of irritation with liberals who are always accusing conservatives as being “anti-science”. Besides the implication that conservatives want to return to living in caves (and who, pray tell, is more likely to be adopting the “paleo-diet?”), it’s grossly inaccurate. Quite frankly, the liberals’ mantra of “The science is settled” is as much or more “anti-science” as the conservative reluctance to swallow liberal policies supposedly based on “settled science”, but filtered and extrapolated through liberal ideologies.

Why would I say that? Because if you will think back to your high school science classes, what is at the heart of the scientific method? Questioning. Doubting. If you think that X may have an impact on Y, how are you supposed to set up your experiment? Beginning with a null hypothesis: “X has no impact on Y.” Whatever you may suspect, the first step in science is to assume you are wrong. You then conduct your experiment, collect your data, analyze that data, and see if that data supports or rejects that null hypothesis.

Then you publish your findings. Other scientists are supposed to poke holes in your methodologies and your interpretations of the data. They attempt to duplicate your results, then publish their results. Slowly–glacially, in some cases–a body of knowledge will be built that will support or refute a particular hypothesis. The results of numerous related studies may point strongly in a certain direction, and science may accept that as the most probable answer, but the science is nearly never settled. It is always open to new data and new studies.

That’s not to say that particular theories can’t be strong enough to take action upon. Some of it may even be something to take political action on. But that is where we inevitably run into trouble. Political ideologies are not science. They are world views; they are opinions. And as much as we may not like it, proving one ideology superior to another is not something science can help us with. When it comes to ideology we become adept at seizing only on that data that supports our position and ignoring anything to the contrary.

The other problem with taking political action based on supposed scientific theory is that most of us never actually get to see the actual science upon which the political issue is based. We’re getting our science fed to us by journalists who not only may not understand the science themselves, but are trying to put it as simply as possible for as many people to understand as they can.

Even if they are careful about it (and far too many journalists are extremely lazy science writers), they still have no control over how you interpret their words. They may carefully state that “Study A has shown a correlation between X and Y”, but for far too many people it’s been a long time since high school science, and much of what they learned they forgot after the test. They tend to forget that “correlation” is not the same thing as “causation”.

But far too often the reporters themselves get it wrong, and write their articles as though correlation means causation. Worse yet, headline writers love to go for the most sensational twist they can get from the text (and reporters almost never write their own headlines). I’ll confess: I get much of my news from headlines. I’ll bet you do, too. Because most of the time we don’t really care to know the details. We read the headline to decide whether to read the article, but do we question the headline itself?

So even assuming the average American understands science, how often do we really get accurate science news? How often do we make political policy decisions based on a shaky framework of distilled science? Nearly always, I’ll venture.

Then, of course, there is the continual evaluation of science based on political or religious ideology. Regardless of your views, that is inherently bad science. Especially when it leads to assumptions about your political opponents based on bad science (or no science). For example, the liberal tenet leading this post about a particular group being “anti-science”, whatever that means. Last I checked, the GOP wasn’t composed entirely of Amish people. On the contrary, a recent Yale professor’s research showed that the Tea Party, a group much maligned for their lack of sophistication, actually know their science pretty well. (Never mind that the Tea Party did not form because of science issues in government, but around fiscal issues and the balance between individual and governmental control.)

The article goes on to point out that it’s those leaning left have the best grasp of science, though it does not say by how much. Religion, on the other hand, showed only a weak negative correlation. Though the article doesn’t give specific data, the impression given is that you’re going to find significant variations in scientific understanding on both sides of the aisle–enough that we really have no business making claims about anyone’s scientific understanding based solely on their politics or their religion.

Indeed, a recent editorial by Mischa Fisher in The Atlantic raises some interesting points for those who consider themselves “pro-science”. When science encounters politics the “conventional wisdom” simply does not hold up:

Matters are more nuanced—or just plain favorable to Republicans—when it comes to the business of actually governing. Comparing the two parties’ proposed funding levels for the major scientific research agencies doesn’t lend itself well to narratives about who’s “pro” or “anti” science. For every cheap shot a Republican member of Congress like Senator Tom Coburn has taken at National Science Foundation grants (see the unfairly maligned robo-squirrel), there are areas where Obama has undercut American leadership in basic science by favoring loan guarantees and industrial subsidies to the alternative-energy industry at the expense of science elsewhere.

We’ve seen this in his proposed cuts to high-energy physics, nuclear physics, planetary science, and other areas of research. Even in the much-maligned “Tea Party-dominated” House of Representatives, the GOP budget proposals provided more funding for the NSF than those of the Senate Democrats for the current 2013 fiscal year.

The editoral goes on to call for those who are pro-science to stop the name-calling and over-simplification and work together. Political expediency, Fisher warns, will usually leave science out in the cold (or at least out of the budget). We need to band together to make sure science continues to be a priority if the US is to retain its edge, let alone its leadership.

To which I add an enthusiastic “Hear, hear!”

But at the very least, let’s not be so quick to judge one another. Yes, I’m a conservative (but don’t consider myself Republican). But I suspect you’ll find many of my opinions on science and science-based policy are not what many liberals claim. For example, while I don’t believe the science on global warming is as settled as some people like to think, I’m not against taking steps to curb emissions, cut pollution, and use our natural resources more responsibly. Since we don’t really understand nature and climate as well as we like to think, I’d prefer to err on the side of “let’s not interfere any more than necessary”.

I believe that God created the universe, the earth, and man, but tend to view the biblical accounts as dramatic simplifications. I believe God works through natural means to the point that it could be difficult to tell the difference between divine intervention and random mutation. (There’s a reason for that, but that’s another post for another time.) Whether man evolved from apes or whether man-like apes were allowed to develop to the point that creating man was not an impossible leap I really don’t know, and I really don’t care. That’s not what my religion is about, and I’ll worry about the unimportant details later.

Whether this all occurred naturally, or whether God has the power to make everything appear like it could have occurred naturally is really not that important. For all that science has discovered, they have not disproven God, only defined and clarified the minimum expectations on what God must be capable of. The more we learn, the more interesting God becomes. And God himself encourages us to learn as much a we can.

But at the end of it all, the points of contention between the prominant ideologies are somewhat minor in the over-all umbrella of Science. There just happen to be a few politically charged issues here and there that get blown out of proportion. I don’t see Dems and GOPs debating whether light is a particle or a wave, or moves at a constant, insurmountable speed. I don’t see either side questioning whether it’s at least possible to live on Mars. No one filibustered molecular bonding in the Senate in recent memory. No one questions whether or not we should be researching new drugs or medical technologies. We all agree that volcanoes and earthquakes occur, and that we should probably take precautions to minimize the loss of life when they do.

And we should all take great relief in the notion that science is never settled. There is always more to be discovered. Let’s quit fighting each other and get on with it already.

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3 Responses to Science, Politics, and the Truth

  1. Denise Stratton says:

    Having spent a lot of time perusing blogs about various ways of eating, and reading many books and articles, I don’t see one political group being more likely than another to adopt the paleo diet. (Or the Atkins Diet, gluten free, primal ect.) It seems poeple end up adpoting these diets out of frustration with current mainstream dietary advice and how it doesn’t work for them. There is some very bad dietary science accepted by the mainstream media, and even by practicing physicians. I totally agree that people don’t know how to interpret the validity of scientific articles.

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